It's difficult to imagine a more entertaining activist figure than Jean Dominique, who over the course of 20 years battled impossible odds as a political broadcaster and the head of Radio Haiti. While Jonathan Demme's 2003 documentary, The Agronomist, does not flinch from depicting the horrific human costs of injustice and violent oppression, the film serves as a heartening lesson for how the human spirit can also be preserved --- Dominique at least makes it look easy.
Indeed, the film conveys the perseverance and bravery of Dominique and his wife and business partner, Michele Montas. Together they openly confront US-aided Haitian dictatorships, the US government, and even beleaguered anti-totalitarian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on the air --- all to the tune of being shot at, imprisoned, losing journalists to torture and execution, destruction of the studio, and periods of exile.
Higher inspiration, though, comes from the way The Agronomist captures the couple's individual personalities. Looking, perhaps, like your uncle whose cantankerous good humor makes him a big hit at family functions, the lively Dominique sports a pipe too large for his head and never seems to run out of stories. Nearly every word, accompanied by wild gestures, explodes from the man. In one scene, his eyes bulge hugely and then the shot freezes.
Demme does a great job of accenting and even having fun with his central subject without ever making fun of him. Audiences can expect to laugh out loud throughout the film, but this quickly establishes an ease of familiarity between Dominique and the viewer. Rather than lose impact, the power of his ideas becomes more compelling.
Surprisingly, Dominique smiles often --- after almost every line --- even while discussing atrocities and major setbacks to his own goal of keeping the station up and running. One has to wonder whether the smiling might be rooted in communication aspects of Haitian culture, but Dominique's warmth, infectious enthusiasm, and optimism distinguish him nonetheless. Not to be overshadowed is Montas, whose combination of grace and steady intelligence offsets Dominique perfectly, so that the viewer doesn't overdose on one person.
Again, Demme must be applauded for avoiding the propaganda trap. It never seems like he's trying to cast his subjects in any particular light. Relying on very simple elements --- interview and homemade newsreel footage, mostly, shot on grainy, low-quality film --- Demme composes an engaging history lesson that maintains a brisk rhythm despite its span of two decades. (In a blistering scene, Aristide is shown blasting UN officials for not taking a more active role in helping to improve the disastrous state of human rights and economy in Haiti.)
Though his editing choices enhance the experience --- especially in spots where it's clear he's having fun, such as the eye-popping freeze frame and loops of Dominique a la Max Headroom --- Demme's presence remains, for the most part, transparent. Ultimately, he steps aside for Dominique, with eyes blazing, to make the film's main point: "You cannot kill the truth!"
The Agronomist screens on Saturday, December 4, at the Dryden Theatre, at 8 p.m. $6. 271-4090
--- Saby Reyes-Kulkarni